The story of the ship’s orchestra playing the hymn ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ as the Titanic sank is well known and documented. Survivors of the sinking also recounted how a Roman Catholic priest gathered more than a hundred passengers round him on the stern of the ship and led them in prayer after all the lifeboats had been launched. The priest’s name was Thomas Byles and he had spent his formative years in Leamington.
Born Roussel Davids Byles in Leeds on 26 February 1870 he came to Leamington with his siblings when his father the Revd Alfred Holden Byles, a nonconformist minister, was appointed pastor of the Spencer Street chapel in May 1882. The young Byles and his brothers attended Leamington College which at that date was a minor public school. The family lived in some style in Clarendon Square and later in Avenue Road with several servants. The five Byles brothers frequently figured in the annual list of college prize winners published in The Courier. In 1889 Roussel the oldest of the brothers gained a place at Balliol College, Oxford to study theology and in the same year the family left Leamington when Alfred took up the pastorate of the Hanley Tabernacle in Stoke-on-Trent.
It was while he was at Oxford that R D Byles converted to Catholicism and took the name of Thomas after his hero St. Thomas Aquinas. After graduating with a BA he took a job as a master at St Edmund’s College a boys’ school and seminary in Ware, Hertfordshire but he had made up his mind that he wanted to enter the priesthood. After studying in Rome, he was ordained in 1902 and was assigned to the parish of St. Helens in Chipping Ongar, Essex where he remained until his death.
His younger brother William had also converted to Catholicism and had moved to America to run a business. In 1912 he wrote to Thomas Byles to ask him to officiate at his forthcoming wedding in Jackson, Florida. Thomas intended to travel to New York on one of the White Star liners and at the last minute opted to buy a second class ticket for the Titanic at a cost of £13. He boarded the liner at Southampton on 10 April 1912. He said Mass on the morning of the sinking and was walking on the upper deck when the Titanic struck the iceberg on 14 April. Following the collision he helped many of the passengers up the stairs to the boat deck and lifeboats and prayed and sang with the large number of passengers who couldn’t find a place in the lifeboats and were destined to go down with the ship in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Survivors of the tragedy recalled that he had several times declined a seat in one of the lifeboats while passengers still remained on board. Speaking about the events to a New York newspaper reporter, Miss Ellen Mockler of Galway recounted how she had found herself in the last lifeboat to leave the ship. ‘As we were slowly going further away from the ship, I could hear distinctly the voice of the priest and the responses to his prayers. Then they became fainter and fainter until I could only hear the strains of â€Nearer my God to Thee’.
William Byles’s wedding went ahead. A Brooklyn newspaper reported that the bride and groom went home after the ceremony, changed into mourning clothes and returned to the church for a Requiem Mass for Father Byles. His body was never covered. He was just one of the 1517 passengers who died on that fateful April night.
In recent times there has been renewed interest in the story of Fr Byles and his fortitude in the face of great danger and imminent death. A book has been written about him and there have been a number of TV and radio interviews about him and a film in America. There is a movement within the Catholic Church in England to have him canonised. In an article in the Catholic Herald last year Fr Graham Smith said that he believed that Fr Byles’s actions show us that heroic acts of virtue really do happen and they should be told and re-told to inspire another generation.
After writing the article on Fr Thomas Byles, it occurred to me that at some time in the distant past I had read about another passenger with local connections who had also been lost when the ship sank. Apart from Father Byles, there were eight Ministers of Religion of various denominations on RMS Titanic on that fateful April day. Among these was the Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter an Anglican clergyman and vicar of St Jude’s church in Whitechapel in East London. What came as a surprise to me was that E C Carter had like Byles been educated at Leamington College for a period in the 1870’s.
On the evening of the sinking, Revd Carter presided over a service of hymns for a hundred or so passengers in the second-class dining saloon. We know that a lady named Marion Wright led the singing accompanied on the piano by Douglas Norman. Revd Carter preceded each hymn with a history of the hymn and its author. At about ten o’clock, the steward arrived to set out the tables for breakfast and Carter brought the proceedings to a close by thanking the Purser and adding how steady the ship was and how everyone was looking forward to their arrival in New York. His closing words were these. It is the first time that there have been hymns sung on this boat on a Sunday evening but we trust and pray it won’t be the last but Fate decreed otherwise.
Revd. Carter was en route to America on holiday with his wife Lillian, both of whom were drowned and their bodies never recovered. Lillian Carter also had a Warwickshire connection. Her father Thomas Hughes was the author of the novel “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” based on his time at Rugby School in the1830’s.
The relief of Ernest & Lillian Carter forms part of a bronze memorial tablet first erected in St Jude’s church Whitechapel but following the demolition of the church, was later moved to St Mary’s church in the village of Longcot in Oxfordshire where Lillian’s uncle John Hughes had served as Vicar.
Alan Griffin, October and November 2017